Scott Peterson appeal says verdict tainted by publicity, bias
Convicted murderer Scott Peterson told the California Supreme Court that his guilty verdict and death sentence should be overturned because his trial was tainted by massive publicity, a biased jury pool and shaky evidence.
In his appeal, Peterson said he was convicted of murdering his pregnant wife, Laci, and their unborn son “absent evidence of how, where or when the murder occurred."
“At the very least, a verdict under such circumstances raises a legitimate question as to how a jury could arrive at such a result,” Peterson’s lawyers wrote in the 423-page brief. They said the answer was overwhelming pretrial publicity and widespread public belief in Peterson’s guilt, fueled in part by inaccurate reports from police who assumed form the start that Peterson had killed his missing wife.
The lawyers noted that nearly half the prospective jurors said in pretrial questioning that they believed Peterson killed Laci, and a huge billboard outside the courthouse asked people to call in and vote on whether Peterson was “man or monster.”
The appeal reminded the court that “a mob” of more than 1,000 people waited outside the San Mateo County courthouse for the verdict and wildly cheered the departing jurors after they found Peterson guilty but before they had deliberated on whether he should be condemned to die.
Laci Peterson disappeared on Christmas Eve 2002. Her husband told police that he had gone fishing in San Francisco Bay off the Berkeley marina and returned to find their Modesto home empty. Intensive searches failed to find a trace of the missing woman until her unborn son, Conner, washed up on a beach near Berkeley a year later, near a torso that was identified as Laci’s.
Peterson’s lawyers complained that an expert witness who testified about the movement of bodies in water admitted he was not schooled in the subject. They also questioned “highly prejudicial dog scent evidence” from a dog with a record of being wrong 66% of the time.
Lawyers for the former Modesto fertilizer salesman also faulted the trial judge for excluding a video that the defense said showed Peterson’s fishing boat would have capsized if he had used it to dump his wife’s body, weighted down with anchors, into the bay.
“The evidence the state claimed conclusively established Scott’s guilt was simply unreliable and should never have been admitted in this capital trial,” Cliff Gardner, Peterson’s chief appellate lawyer, argued.
Peterson’s appeal is not likely to be decided soon. More briefs will be filed, and the court could spend a year or more studying the written arguments before scheduling a hearing. Peterson is also entitled to file a second legal challenge based on evidence that was not presented at trial and may appeal his case in federal court if he loses in the state court.
-- Maura Dolan
Photo: Scott Peterson in court in 2004. Credit: Al Golub / Associated Press